Overview


A brilliant new collection of short stories from ?the conspicuously talented? (Time) Rivka Galchen

In one of the intensely imaginative stories in Rivka?s Galchen?s American Innovations, a young woman?s furniture walks out on her. In another, the narrator feels compelled to promise to deliver a takeout order that has incorrectly been phoned in to her. In a third, the petty details of a property ...

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American Innovations

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Overview


A brilliant new collection of short stories from “the conspicuously talented” (Time) Rivka Galchen

In one of the intensely imaginative stories in Rivka’s Galchen’s American Innovations, a young woman’s furniture walks out on her. In another, the narrator feels compelled to promise to deliver a takeout order that has incorrectly been phoned in to her. In a third, the petty details of a property transaction illuminate the complicated pains and loves of a family.
     The tales in this groundbreaking collection are secretly in conversation with canonical stories, reimagined from the perspective of female characters. Just as Wallace Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar” responds to John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Galchen’s “The Lost Order” covertly recapitulates James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” while “The Region of Unlikeness” is a smoky and playful mirror to Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Aleph.” The title story, “American Innovations,” revisits Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose.”
     By turns realistic, fantastical, witty, and lyrical, these marvelously uneasy stories are deeply emotional and written in exuberant, pitch-perfect prose. Whether exploring the tensions in a mother-daughter relationship or the finer points of time travel, Galchen is a writer like none other today.

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Editorial Reviews

EBOOK COMMENTARY

Praise for American Innovations

“[Galchen’s] writing is skillful, imaginative, often funny…[T]he symmetries, repetitions and recurrences do not irritate but instead illuminate the presence of a singular, readily identifiable voice whose signature obsessions and tendencies recur no matter what story she tells. Like Hemingway writing about fishing. Or Scorsese mythologizing lowlifes. Or Bob Dylan releasing an album’s worth of cover versions and calling it “Self-Portrait.” In that grand tradition of American innovators, perhaps Ms. Galchen’s greatest artistic creation is herself.” —Adam Langer, The New York Times

“To read Rivka Galchen is to enter a wonderland where the bizarre and the mundane march in unlikely lockstep… [the reader] is left feeling oddly exhilarated after these disjointed adventures.”—Michael Lindgren, Washington Post

“Rivka Galchen’s second book—a series of playful, irreverent short stories—showcases her surrealist imagination, while also riffing on canonical tales.” —Wall Street Journal

"[A] bold, inventive and smart young writer." —New York Times Book Review

“Spectral, demanding stories from a brilliant young writer.” —Elle Magazine

“Many of the tales in Galchen’s thrilling collection are reimaginings of classic metaphysical short stories…But Galchen’s stories … are told from the perspective of modern women, who, while not always reliable narrators, are keenly attuned to the small ironies and psychological perversities of everyday life.” —The New Yorker, Page Turner

“The stories in American Innovations proceed through indirection, association, and surprise, making a world in which daily life becomes a dream of life. Their narrators go in search of emotional resolution, but instead find that the furniture is getting up and leaving the house. Galchen’s stories can read almost as meditations on themselves, and their gift to the reader is the sudden and pleasurable awareness of the things we understand the least—the deaths of parents, breakdowns in love, and the hopeful pursuit of joy.” —Donald Antrim, author of The Verificationist

“I am always declaiming to whoever will listen that Rivka Galchen is one of the best things going. She writes for the joy of it and so artfully, and conforms to no one else's standards. Joy and artfulness: why are these so rare? But they are. Galchen is a stand-alone talent.” —Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers

“Rivka Galchen writes about the strangeness of being alive--not that anyone has any other state to compare being alive to, which doesn’t make it any less strange. She writes with intelligence, wit, and great originality. These stories are amazing.”—Roz Chast

“Rivka Galchen is like the pinball wizard of American letters, with a narrative voice that can ricochet from wonder to terror to hilarity in the breadth of a breath. These ten stories of profound loss and profound joy give the Kantian sublime a Key Lime twist, and reveal what happily haunted space cadets we all are in the echo chamber of our ‘ordinary’ American lives. You'll feel compelled to read Galchen’s sentences to strangers on buses. The delicacy and brilliance of what she is doing doesn't yet have a name.” —Karen Russell

American Innovations marks a sharp step forward for American short stories . . . Galchen writes with a glorious and gentle lyricism, her sentences clear and sharp in their tracings of the world's complexity. Her stories shine a light on hidden thoughts and desires, offering up unimagined possibilites for grace as her characters spin through their quiet lives.” —Jonathan Shia, The Last Magazine

“Each story offers a fortified shot of literary enrichment, a dose of characters and genres and settings we didn’t even know we needed, but that now feels vital and enlivening. [American Innovations is] a master class in cohesion—and restraint.” —Hillary Kelly, The New Republic

“Protagonists’ curious circumstances create happy head-scratching.”  —Time Out New York

“Galchen has mastered a tone of deadpan eccentricity, in which characters can reveal the deepest truths about themselves.” —Adam Kirsch, Tablet

“Galchen’s stories feel remarkably believable, despite their suggestion of alternate worlds and lives. This is a collection to read and keep on the bookshelf. It will stand the test of time.” —Kirkus (starred review)

“With her second book, Galchen continues to secure a place for herself among today’s great prose stylists.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“[F]or readers who appreciate the absurd, her stories are exercises of uncommon poetry….The stories are odd and unsettling but burst with brilliant moments of dialogue and observation.” —Booklist

"Galchen is skilled at obscuring the tension of a story. With humor and linguistic sleight of hand, Galchen, like life, dazzles us into forgetting certain inevitabilities. Galchen's finest writing occurs when her characters dangerously dip below their own surfaces and finally acknowledge something." —Bookforum

“The problem with the stories in this clever, urbane, and sometimes surreal collection from the author of the breakout novel Atmospheric Disturbances is that there are only ten of them.” —Library Journal

The New York Times - Adam Langer
…skillful, imaginative, often funny…As you proceed through Ms. Galchen's collection, you begin to see her stories not so much as individual works but as fragments of a self-portrait drawn by a clever, Mittyesque writer, inscrutable to the last, imagining alternative existences for herself. Themes recur, motifs overlap; characters from different stories grapple with similar concerns: time, impermanence, literal and metaphorical weight…And yet, the symmetries, repetitions and recurrences do not irritate but instead illuminate the presence of a singular, readily identifiable voice whose signature obsessions and tendencies recur no matter what story she tells. Like Hemingway writing about fishing. Or Scorsese mythologizing lowlifes. Or Bob Dylan releasing an album's worth of cover versions and calling it Self-Portrait. In that grand tradition of American innovators, perhaps Ms. Galchen's greatest artistic creation is herself.
From the Publisher
Praise for American Innovations

“[Galchen’s] writing is skillful, imaginative, often funny…[T]he symmetries, repetitions and recurrences do not irritate but instead illuminate the presence of a singular, readily identifiable voice whose signature obsessions and tendencies recur no matter what story she tells. Like Hemingway writing about fishing. Or Scorsese mythologizing lowlifes. Or Bob Dylan releasing an album’s worth of cover versions and calling it “Self-Portrait.” In that grand tradition of American innovators, perhaps Ms. Galchen’s greatest artistic creation is herself.” —Adam Langer, The New York Times

“To read Rivka Galchen is to enter a wonderland where the bizarre and the mundane march in unlikely lockstep… [the reader] is left feeling oddly exhilarated after these disjointed adventures.”—Michael Lindgren, Washington Post

“Rivka Galchen’s second book—a series of playful, irreverent short stories—showcases her surrealist imagination, while also riffing on canonical tales.” —Wall Street Journal

"[A] bold, inventive and smart young writer." —New York Times Book Review

“Spectral, demanding stories from a brilliant young writer.” —Elle Magazine

“Many of the tales in Galchen’s thrilling collection are reimaginings of classic metaphysical short stories…But Galchen’s stories … are told from the perspective of modern women, who, while not always reliable narrators, are keenly attuned to the small ironies and psychological perversities of everyday life.” —The New Yorker, Page Turner

“[A] thoroughly Galchean concoction – funny, intellectual, and playfully dark. …Her debut collection of stories [is] frightfully superb…”— Zsuzsi Gartner, The Globe and Mail

“There is something tantalizingly beautiful about Galchen’s evocation of lived experience and entire lives, really, through physical things that are, of themselves, utterly mundane and inconsequential... Reading these stories, one experiences a kind of slippage into an otherworldly space — where people travel through time and encounter the dead and watch their belongings un-belong themselves. It’s the kind of space that great literature makes possible by creating — through this kind of intensely real imagery and dialogue — a world unto itself.” —Shoshana Olidort, Jewish Daily Forward

“The stories in American Innovations proceed through indirection, association, and surprise, making a world in which daily life becomes a dream of life. Their narrators go in search of emotional resolution, but instead find that the furniture is getting up and leaving the house. Galchen’s stories can read almost as meditations on themselves, and their gift to the reader is the sudden and pleasurable awareness of the things we understand the least—the deaths of parents, breakdowns in love, and the hopeful pursuit of joy.” —Donald Antrim, author of The Verificationist

“I am always declaiming to whoever will listen that Rivka Galchen is one of the best things going. She writes for the joy of it and so artfully, and conforms to no one else's standards. Joy and artfulness: why are these so rare? But they are. Galchen is a stand-alone talent.” —Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers

“Rivka Galchen writes about the strangeness of being alive—not that anyone has any other state to compare being alive to, which doesn’t make it any less strange. She writes with intelligence, wit, and great originality. These stories are amazing.”—Roz Chast

“Rivka Galchen is like the pinball wizard of American letters, with a narrative voice that can ricochet from wonder to terror to hilarity in the breadth of a breath. These ten stories of profound loss and profound joy give the Kantian sublime a Key Lime twist, and reveal what happily haunted space cadets we all are in the echo chamber of our ‘ordinary’ American lives. You'll feel compelled to read Galchen’s sentences to strangers on buses. The delicacy and brilliance of what she is doing doesn't yet have a name.” —Karen Russell

American Innovations marks a sharp step forward for American short stories . . . Galchen writes with a glorious and gentle lyricism, her sentences clear and sharp in their tracings of the world's complexity. Her stories shine a light on hidden thoughts and desires, offering up unimagined possibilites for grace as her characters spin through their quiet lives.” —Jonathan Shia, The Last Magazine

“Each story offers a fortified shot of literary enrichment, a dose of characters and genres and settings we didn’t even know we needed, but that now feels vital and enlivening. [American Innovations is] a master class in cohesion—and restraint.” —Hillary Kelly, The New Republic

“Protagonists’ curious circumstances create happy head-scratching.”  —Time Out New York

“Galchen has mastered a tone of deadpan eccentricity, in which characters can reveal the deepest truths about themselves.” —Adam Kirsch, Tablet

“Galchen’s stories feel remarkably believable, despite their suggestion of alternate worlds and lives. This is a collection to read and keep on the bookshelf. It will stand the test of time.” —Kirkus (starred review)

“With her second book, Galchen continues to secure a place for herself among today’s great prose stylists.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“[F]or readers who appreciate the absurd, her stories are exercises of uncommon poetry….The stories are odd and unsettling but burst with brilliant moments of dialogue and observation.” —Booklist

"Galchen is skilled at obscuring the tension of a story. With humor and linguistic sleight of hand, Galchen, like life, dazzles us into forgetting certain inevitabilities. Galchen's finest writing occurs when her characters dangerously dip below their own surfaces and finally acknowledge something." —Bookforum

“The problem with the stories in this clever, urbane, and sometimes surreal collection from the author of the breakout novel Atmospheric Disturbances is that there are only ten of them.” —Library Journal

The Barnes & Noble Review

Coming across the work of Rivka Galchen is like spying a brand-new quarter in the street: arresting in its newborn shine, everything else old by comparison, the luck of the discovery exciting out of proportion to its face value. Her spotless metafictions remark on their own nature as writing; if a character vanishes "so completely that it seemed like a trick," be sure the author is saying something too about the inherent trickery of storytelling. Yet for all its salient nowness — its multilayered construction partakes of extreme literary trendiness while its characters speak Trend as their native tongue — her work is traditional in the extreme. That is, its very insistence on novelty is a twentieth-century convention. Her tacit acknowledgment of the influence of only the most illustrious forebears in this endeavor, from Kafka to Borges, is a mark of supreme ambition. Every truly ambitious writer will claim their bloodlines run direct from the clan of the great.

You don't attain membership in that particular club just by saying so (or even working its filaments through the weft of your work), of course. The question that must be asked is whether Galchen's stories fulfill the promise of her lauded 2008 debut novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, reviews of which almost all finally took refuge in name-dropping; exalted modernists were the ilk most frequently cited: Pynchon, Sebald, Murakami, Bernhard.

Although she would come around to a definite answer more circuitously — and in so doing demonstrate an inherent and modern suspicion of anything as simple or certain as an answer — the old-fashioned response, on the basis of American Innovations, is an unhesitant yes. These stories almost all without exception follow through on their pledge to astonish; every paragraph has intention firmly lodged behind it. It's a paradox, then, that her project is an investigation of unreliability. No — not the unreliability of the narrator. That's been done. (Not least by Galchen, in her novel.) But the unreliability of everything. Including one's furniture.

In the collection's weakest story (let's start there), this theme is made most manifest: in "Once an Empire" the narrator comes home to her Brooklyn apartment one night to discover her possessions climbing down the fire escape, one by one. The theme of existential queasiness, of wondering what we can rely on if not on the eternal persistence of a lovingly and minutely described souvenir fork "which I've had forever and ever," is here most blatantly expressed. It's a nice conceit, even if it doesn't quite work. Galchen writes of these objects, as they progress toward their own new life, that they display "an enviable sense of purpose." This is precisely what is missing, she is at pains to say here and more organically in her other tales, in contemporary life.

That life, as exhibited throughout American Innovations, is more and more occupied with concerns that are clearly displacements: real estate, money, caloric intake, the unsettled flux of young relationships, and pretensions of all sorts. Galchen's characters are confounded by the interminable number of individual trees in an unseen forest. As one person (a professor of library sciences, naturally) tellingly inquires in the title story, "Are things well in the land of the young and innovative?" His interlocutor, a young woman who grows a highly symbolic extra body part that makes her an online sensation, barely flinches in the face of her ontological anxiety, but Galchen herself might be imagined to answer: Um, not exactly. One of her favorite words is "or."

There is more exercise of vocabulary, too, always done with determined precision. When a five-dollar word is laid down, it is for a carefully considered purchase. The transactional nature of writing is made explicit in "The Lost Order," in which a purposeless young woman briefly finds one when a takeout order is mistakenly phoned to her. One afternoon she had found herself saying to the managing partner, "I'm afraid I'll need to tender my resignation." "I used that word, 'tender.' I could have rescinded all those words, of course."

This sub-rosa slapstick with the notion of linguistic rigor is further amplified when, immediately afterward, the narrator's husband is said to have put down his "handheld technology." Intentional awkwardness is a common technique by which the author stays at an ironic distance from her characters: "We're not symbol people," remarks one, which is a tipoff that in these stories every word and deed is meant to stand for something else.

Galchen has placed herself firmly in contemporary tradition, where structure strives for puzzle-box-within-a-Rubik's-cube complexity, and a natural existential dread has given rise to a preoccupation with the fantastic, magical, and post-apocalyptic. (Current media fashion in zombies and vampires is no accident in a world of unexplained disappearances and general mistrust, where "news and data breed and the crowded channels grow ever noisier" with ever less to actually touch or hold.) Galchen's unerring eye for the most absurd frivolities — the precise way a digital calorie-counting armband malfunctions; the fact that no urban flea market is complete without superfluous "well- packaged jam" — serves her, and thus her readers, very well indeed.

In a singular departure from the post-post-structuralist play that dominates most of the stories, there is the pure emotionality of "Wild Berry Blue," an uncanny evocation of girlhood love, blossoming for the first (and, as it always seems, premature) time. It is so exact in its replication of every gesture, thought, and face-flushing sensation of being nine and possessed by something impossibly large — not to mention inappropriate, for the object of the child's affection is an ex- junkie who works the counter at MacDonald's — it is almost preternatural. The story is a detailed mechanical blueprint of first sexual awakening, a critical pivot on the plans of which is the moment a girl realizes "Roy alone is my whole world."

The power in Galchen's stories is of the tightly coiled variety: there is the sense that something could burst, could rise up out of the earth with a soul-crushing howl, and then we would be no more. A uneasy fear runs just under the surface of these fables with their mother-daughter squabbles, days-in-the-life of the well-educated upper-middle-class drifter, mentions of people with assumed identities who may "or" may not exist, all delivered matter-of-factly with the occasional fillip of arch deflation ("a sufficiently prestigious university" — meaning Wesleyan, not Yale?). In the middle of the title story, again, what passes most closely to a throwaway line in the oeuvre of a writer who has mastered the art of reducing her garbage footprint may well be the key to Galchen's main enterprise. She's just crafty enough to see if we're awake to hear her prescient whisper. The narrator at one point offers that, "yes, people really could be people." In the fabulations that comprise American Innovations — studiously innovative all — this refers to the slippery truth that things are both as they seem and that they never are. Only the old-fashioned and gullible do not distrust everything. You can trust Rivka Galchen on that.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of three works of nonfiction: The Perfect Vehicle, Dark Horses and Black Beauties, andThe Place You Love Is Gone, all from Norton. She is writing a book on B. F. Skinner and the ethics of dog training.

Reviewer: Melissa Holbrook Pierson

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374711207
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 5/6/2014
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 143,878
  • File size: 454 KB

Meet the Author


Rivka Galchen is the recipient of a William Saroyan International Prize for Fiction Writing and a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, among other distinctions. She writes regularly for The New Yorker, whose editors selected her for their list of “20 Under 40” American fiction writers in 2010. Her debut novel, the critically acclaimed Atmospheric Disturbances, was published by FSG in 2008.

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Read an Excerpt


THE LOST ORDER
 
 
I was at home, not making spaghetti. I was trying to eat a little less often, it’s true. A yogurt in the morning, a yogurt at lunchtime, ginger candies in between, and a normal dinner. I don’t think of myself as someone with a “weight issue,” but I had somehow put on a number of pounds just four months into my unemployment, and when I realized that this had happened—I never weigh myself; my brother just said to me, on a visit, “I don’t recognize your legs”—I wasn’t happy about it. Although maybe I was happy about it. Because at least I had something that I knew it wouldn’t be a mistake to really dedicate myself to. I could be like those people who by trying to quit smoking or drinking manage to fit an accomplishment, or at least an attempt at an accomplishment, into every day. Just by aiming to not do something. This particular morning, there was no yogurt left for my breakfast. I could go get some? I could treat myself to maple. Although the maple yogurt was always full cream. But maybe full cream was fine, because it was just a tiny—
My phone is ringing.
The caller ID reads “Unavailable.”
I tend not to answer calls identified as Unavailable. But sometimes Unavailable shows up because someone is calling from, say, the hospital.
“One garlic chicken,” a man’s voice is saying. “One side of salad, with the ginger-miso dressing. Also one white rice. White, not brown. This isn’t for pickup,” he says. “It’s for delivery.”
He probably has the wrong number, I figure. I mean, of course he has the wrong—
“Not the lemon chicken,” he is going on. “I don’t want the lemon. What I want—”
“OK. I get it—”
“Last time you delivered the wrong thing—”
“Lemon chicken—”
“Garlic chicken—”
“OK—”
“I know you,” he says.
“What?”
“Don’t just say ‘OK’ and then bring me the wrong order. OK, OK, OK. Don’t just say ‘OK.’” He starts dictating his address. I have no pencil in hand.
“OK,” I say. “I mean, all right.” I’ve lost track of whether it was the lemon chicken or the garlic he wanted. Wanting and not wanting. Which tap is hot and which is cold. I still have trouble with left and right.
“How long?” he asks.
“Thirty minutes?”
He hangs up.
Ack. Why couldn’t I admit that I wasn’t going to be bringing him any chicken at all? Now I’m wronging a hungry man. One tries not to do too many wrong things in life. But I can’t call him back: he’s Unavailable!
Just forget it.
*   *   *
Forgetting is work, though. I returned to not making spaghetti, a task to which I had added not setting out to buy yogurt. Then it struck me that getting dressed would be a good idea. It was 10:40 a.m. Early for chicken. Yes, I should and would get dressed. Unfortunately, on the issue of getting dressed I consistently find myself wishing that I were a man. I don’t mean that in an ineluctable gender disturbance way, it’s not that; it’s that I think I would have an easier time choosing an outfit. Though having a body is problematic no matter what. Even for our dog. One summer we thought we would do her a favor by shaving her fur, but then afterward she hung her head and was inconsolable. Poor girl. The key is to not have time to think about your body, and dogs—most dogs anyhow—have a lot of free time. So do I, I guess. Although, I don’t feel like I have a lot of time; I feel constantly pressed for time; even though when I had a job, I felt like I had plenty of time. But even then getting dressed was difficult. For a while it was my conviction that pairing tuxedo-like pants with any of several inexpensive white T-shirts would solve the getting-dressed problem for me for at least a decade, maybe for the rest of my life. I bought the tuxedo-like pants! Two pairs. And some men’s undershirts. But it turned out that I looked even more sloppy than usual. And by sloppy I mostly just mean female, with curves, which can be OK, even great, in many circumstances, sure, but a tidy look for a female body, feminine or not feminine, is elusive and unstable. Dressing as a woman is like working with color instead of with black and white. Or like drawing a circle freehand. They say that Giotto got his job painting St. Peter’s based solely on the pope’s being shown a red circle he’d painted with a single brushstroke. That’s how difficult circles are. In the seven hundred years since Giotto, probably still—
I found myself back in the kitchen, still not making spaghetti, and wearing a T-shirt. Not the one I had woken up in, but still a T-shirt that would be best described as pajamas and that I wasn’t feeling too good or masculine or flat-chested in, either. Giotto? It was 11:22 a.m. Making lemon chicken for that man would have been a better way to spend my time, I thought. Or garlic chicken. Whichever. I felt as if there were some important responsibility that I was neglecting so wholly that I couldn’t even admit to myself that it was there. Was I really taking that man’s delivery order so seriously?
At least I wasn’t eating.
I decided to not surf the Internet.
Then to not watch a television show.
Hugging my favorite throw pillow, I lay down on the sofa, and thought, Just count backward from one hundred. This is something I do that calms me down. What’s weird is that I don’t recall ever having made it to the number one. Sometimes I fall asleep before I reach one—that’s not so mysterious—but more often I just get lost. I take some sort of turn away from counting, without realizing it, and only then, far away even from whatever the turn was, do I realize I am elsewhere.
The throw pillow has matryoshka dolls on it. I started counting down. Ninety-six, ninety-five, ninety-four …
The phone is ringing.
It’s Unavailable.
I hate my phone. I hate all phones.
Why should I have to deal with this hungry man’s problems, these problems that stem from a past to which I don’t belong? Not my fucking jurisdiction.
Although admittedly, the fact that our paths are now entangled—that part kind of is my fault.
“OK?” I say, into the phone.
“I think I know where it is,” a familiar male voice says.
“It’s not even on its way yet,” I confess. “I’m sorry.”
“What’s not on its way? Are you asleep?”
I locate the voice more precisely. The voice belongs to my husband.
“Sorry, sorry. I’m here now.”
“I’m saying I think I know where it is. I think I lost it when I was in the courtyard with Monkey, tossing tennis balls for her.” Our dog’s name is Monkey. One of the reasons I was lonelier than usual was that Monkey was on a kind of dog holiday in the country, with my in-laws. “My hands were really cold. I had bought an icy water bottle.”
“OK,” I say.
“You know how it is, when your hand gets cold; your fingers shrink. So maybe that’s when the ring fell off. I’m almost sure of it. It’s supposed to rain later today, and I’m worried the rain will just wash the ring right into a gutter. I’m sorry to put this on you, but would you mind taking a look around for it?”
He is talking about: a couple of weeks earlier I had very briefly gone away, to my uncle’s funeral, and when I returned, my husband was no longer wearing his wedding ring. It’s such an unimportant thing that to be honest, I didn’t even notice he was no longer wearing it. And he hadn’t noticed, either. We’re not symbol people. We didn’t realize that his ring was gone until we were at dinner with a friend visiting from Chicago and she asked to see both of our rings. Then my husband was a little weird about it. I guess he had simultaneously known and not known. Meaning he had known. A part of him had. And had worried enough about it to pretend that it hadn’t happened. Poor guy.
“I’m not going to go look for it,” I find myself saying into the phone. It’s not really a decision, it’s more like a discovery. I’m not going to be a woman hopelessly searching for a wedding ring in a public courtyard. Even if the situation does not in fact carry the metaphorical weight it misleadingly seems to carry. Still no. I had recently seen a photograph of Susan Sontag wearing a bear costume but with a serious expression on her face; you could see that she felt uneasy.
“Just go and even try not looking for it,” my husband is saying. “Just give the courtyard a little visit. Please.”
“There’s no way it’s still—”
“You really can’t do this one little thing?”
“This is my fault?”
“I’m on hour twenty-nine of my shift here.”
“I’m not doing nothing,” I say. I find I’ve neither raised nor lowered my voice, though I feel like I have done both. “You think I’m not capable, but that’s not right. You just don’t understand my position. You see me all wrong. It’s not fair, it’s not right—”
“I’m so sorry, my love,” he is saying. His voice has hairpin-turned to tender. Which is alarming. “I’m on your side,” he says. “I really do love you so much. You know that, right? You know I love you so much.”
We hadn’t always conversed in a way that sounded like advanced ESL students trying to share emotions, but recently that was happening to us; I think we were just trying to keep a steady course through an inevitable and insignificant strait in our relationship.
“I’m sorry, Boo,” I say. “I’m the one who should apologize.” I am suddenly missing him very badly, as if I have been woken from one of those dreams where the dead are still with us. Being awake feels awful. I language along, and then at some point in my ramblings he says to me, “I have to go now,” and then he is gone.
*   *   *
The daytime hours in this neighborhood belong almost exclusively to deliverymen and nannies. The deliverymen are all men. And the nannies are all women. And the women are all dark-skinned. I had not given much thought to my neighborhood’s socioeconomic or gender clustering before I became a daylight ghost. I mean, sure, I knew about it vaguely, but there it was—under cover of day, one saw, or at least it seemed as if one saw, that decades of feminism and civil rights advances had never happened. This was appalling. Yet there was not no comfort for me in the idea that men had strong calves, and carried things, and that it was each toddler’s destiny to fall in love with another woman. Was it my fault that these feelings lived inside me? Maybe.
I had not always—had not even long—been a daylight ghost, a layabout, a mal pensant, a vacancy, a housewife, a person foiled by the challenge of getting dressed and someone who considered eating less a valid primary goal. I had been a fairly busy environmental lawyer, an accidental expert of sorts in toxic mold litigation—litigation concerning alleged damage to property and persons by reason of exposure to toxic mold. I handled the first toxic mold case that came into the firm, so when the second case turned up, shortly thereafter, I was the go-to girl. A Texas jury had made an award of thirty-two million dollars in a case in 2001, and that had set a lot of hearts to dreaming. But the Texas case was really an insurance case, and so not a precedent for toxic mold cases. Most people don’t understand that. An insurance company had failed to pay promptly for repairs to leaking pipes in a twenty-two-room mansion that subsequently became moldy; all claims relating to personal injuries from toxic mold were dismissed, and an award was made only for property damage, punitive damages, mental anguish, and to cover plaintiff’s legal fees of nearly nine million dollars. But since the case was on the evening news, it was, predictably, radically misrepresented. Hence, toxic mold–litigation fever. It has been established that mold, like dust, is environmentally pervasive; some of us are allergic to some molds, just as some of us are allergic to dust, though whether any mold can damage our health in a lasting or severe way is unlikely, and certainly not scientifically proven. Also clear is that basic maintenance is an essential duty of a property owner. But beyond that … I handled quite a large number of mold cases. I filled out the quiet fields of forms. I dispatched environmental testers. The job was more satisfying than it sounds, I can tell you. To have any variety of expertise, and to deploy it, can feel like a happy dream.
But one day I woke up and heard myself saying, I am a fork being used to eat cereal. I am not a spoon. I am a fork. And I can’t help people eat cereal any longer.
I judged my sentiment foolish, sure, but it captained me nevertheless. I laid no plan, but that afternoon I found myself saying to the managing partner, “I’m afraid I’ll need to tender my resignation.” I used that word, “tender.”
I could have rescinded all those words, of course.
But that night, after the tender word, I said to Boo, “I think I’m leaving my job.”
He set down his handheld technology.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll find some other work.”
“No, it’s really OK,” he said. “You don’t have to work at all. If you don’t want to. Or you could work at a bakery. Why not? You’ll figure it out. Under no time pressure, OK? I like my work. We can live from that.”
My husband is a pretty understanding guy; nevertheless, I found myself thinking of an old Japanese movie where the father gets stomach cancer but the family keep it a secret from him, and are all just very kind to him. “But you might wake up one day and not like your work anymore,” I said.
“That’s not going to happen to me,” he said. “I’m just not like that.” Then he added, “I could see you were unhappy. I could see that before you could. Honestly, I feel relieved.”
*   *   *
When the phone rings again—Unavailable—I pick it up right away. I had been so childish about not wanting to go look for the ring; I would tell Boo that I would go look for the ring, and then I would do that, I would go and look for it.
“Fifty-five minutes,” he says.
“I’m so sorry, I—”
“You said half an hour. It’s about expectations and promises. You don’t have to make these promises. But you do. You leave people expecting. Which is why you’re not just a loser working a shit job but also a really terrible person, the very worst kind, the kind who needs everyone to think she’s so nice. I never found you attractive. I never trusted you. You say, Yes, this, and I’m Sorry, that, and Oops, Really Sorry, and We Just Want to Do What Makes You Happy, but who falls for that? I don’t fall for it. I’m the one who sees who you really are—”
“I think you—”
“Why do you apologize and giggle all the time? To every guy the same thing. Why do you wear that silver leotard and that ridiculous eye shadow? Your breasts look uneven in that leotard. You know what you look like? You look like a whore. Not like an escort or a call girl. You look like a ten-dollar blow job. If you think you’re ever going to pass in this city as anything other than just one more whore-cunt—”
I hang up the phone.
I turn off the phone.
I pour myself a glass of water, but first I spill it and then I altogether drop it, and then I clean that up poorly. I don’t even own a silver leotard. Yet I had been called out by a small and omniscient God. I was going to be punished, and swiftly. I put on my husband’s boots and his raincoat, unintentionally creating a rubbery analogue of the clean and flat-chested look I have for years longed for. I left the apartment and headed out to the courtyard, a few blocks away; I wasn’t going to come back without that ring.
*   *   *
When I get to the courtyard, I see that it is not really a courtyard, but just some concrete and a few picnic tables at the windy base of the tallest building in the neighborhood. Thinking of it as a courtyard—I guess that was a fantasy on which my husband and I had subconsciously colluded. I do see something glinting in the midday sun; it proves to be a silvery gum wrapper. There’s not even a coin on the ground. Bear suit, I’m thinking. It starts to drizzle. Then I remember: doormen are more than just people one feels one has failed to entertain. If I were in a so-called courtyard, and I found a band of gold that didn’t belong to me—
Between the doorman and me, there at his desk, are two women. The women are dark-skinned; they are both wearing brown; they are wearing, I realize on delay, UPS uniforms. One of them is also wearing a fleecy brown vest. “The guy was totally whacked,” the vested one says.
I feel somewhat bad because I find I am staring at these women’s asses (I think of that word as the most gentle and affectionate of the options) and I feel somewhat good because both of the asses are so attractive, though they are quite different: one is juvenile and undemanding, and the other is unembarrassedly space-occupying and reminiscent somehow of gardening—of bending over and doing things. The pants are nicely tight-fitting. I do know that I—and really everyone—am not supposed to think this way about women, or for that matter about men, because, I guess the argument goes, it reduces people to containers of sexual possibility. But I’m not sure that’s quite what is going on. Maybe I just think these women have solved the getting dressed problem. “I think that was his friend,” one of them says, “writing down the license plate number of the truck.”
“Was someone bothering you guys?” I find myself interjecting. “This is a weirdly rough neighborhood. Even as it’s kind of a nice neighborhood, it’s also sort of a rough one—”
“Every neighborhood is rough today—”
“It’s iPhone day—”
The UPS women have turned and opened their circle to me.
“They’ve ordered two million iPhones—”
“Someone in my neighborhood already got stabbed over a delivery.”
“I hate phones,” I offer. “I really hate them.”
“There’s no Apple in Russia,” the doorman says. “You can sell the phones to a Russian for fourteen hundred dollars. You buy them for six hundred; you sell them for fourteen hundred.”
“Delivery must be terrifying,” I say to the women. “You never know what’s up with the person on the other side of the door. It’s like you knock on your own nightmare.”
“People love their iPhones,” the vested deliverywoman says. “My daughter says it’s like they would marry their iPhones.”
I keep not asking about Boo’s ring. “I’ve never seen a woman working UPS delivery before,” I say. “And now here you are—two of you at once. I feel like I’m seeing a unicorn. Or the Loch Ness monster. Maybe both, I guess.”
There’s a bit of a quiet then.
“They don’t normally travel in twos,” the doorman says. “It’s only because today is considered dangerous.”
“There’s at least a hundred of us,” the unvested woman says, shrugging.
“Not too many, but some.”
“Good luck,” the doorman is saying.
The women are walking away.
Now it’s just me and the doorman. I am back in the familiar world again. I feel compelled to hope that he finds me attractive, and I feel angry at him, as if he were responsible for that feeling, and I find myself unzipping my husband’s raincoat and pushing back the hood, like one of those monkeys whose ovulation is not concealed. I’m looking for, I imagine myself saying to this man, a wedding ring. Oh, he says, You’re all looking for rings.
There was no ring there. But you saw a unicorn today, I remind myself. That’s something. It’s all about keeping busy. We can just buy another ring. Why didn’t we think of that earlier? The old ring cost, maybe, three hundred dollars. We could buy a new one, nothing wrong with that, no need to think it means something it doesn’t, though it would mean something nice to have it again, I think to myself, as I find an appealing empty table in the back corner of a Peruvian chicken joint, where I order french fries. Some people save their marriages—not that our marriage needs saving, not that it’s in danger, one can’t be seduced by the semantically empty loss of a ring, I remind myself—by having adventures together. We could pull a heist. Me and Boo. Boo and … well, we’d have some Bonnie and Clyde–type name, just between ourselves. We could heist a UPS truck full of iPhones. On a rural delivery route. The guns wouldn’t need to be real, definitely not. We could then move to another country. An expensive and cold one where no one comes looking and where people leave their doors unlocked because wealth is distributed so equitably. This is not my kind of daydream, I think. This is not my sort of reverie. It is someone else’s. Maybe that’s fine. I was never a Walter Mitty myself. Though I consistently fell in love with and envied that type. But a Walter Mitty can’t be married to a Walter Mitty. It doesn’t work. There is a maximum allowance of one Walter Mitty per household. That’s just how it goes.
*   *   *
“Why is your phone off? Where were you?”
I guess hours have passed. Boo is back home. It’s dark out.
“I got scared,” I say. “I was getting scary phone calls. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”
There’s opened mail on the table.
Boo says, “Look, I know there’s something important that you haven’t told me.”
My body seems to switch climates. It must be the unbreathing raincoat.
“I know you’re scared,” he is saying. “I know you’re scared of lots of things. I don’t want to catch you out. I’m tired of catching out. I don’t want to be a catcher-outer. I just want to be told. Just tell me the thing that you’ve been hiding from me. This could be a good day for us. You could tell me, and then I will feel like I can begin to trust you more again, because I’ll know you can tell me things even when it is scary and difficult to tell.”
I see that along with the mail, there is a shoebox full of my papers on the table. “I was just out,” I hear myself saying. Is this something to do with the guy calling for delivery? “I was just lonely in the house, and spooked, and so I went out,” I go on. “I had a salad. I guess various things happen in a day. I guess one can always share more. But I can’t think of anything I would call a secret.”
There is a long pause now. As if, I’m thinking, I’d made an awkward, outsize observation, like calling him the Loch Ness monster, or a unicorn. He is my unicorn, though. I forgot that I used to say that; that’s how I felt falling in love with him, as if I’d found a creature of myth. He was less practical then, more dreamy. He had an old belt with a little pony on it; the pony was always upside down.
“Please,” he says. “I’m asking as nicely as I can. Don’t you have something you want to say to me?”
“I went out and looked for the ring,” I say. “I wanted to tell you that. I didn’t find the ring. But I did look for it. We should just buy another one.”
“A severance check arrived for you,” he says. “Actually, I’ve found three of your severance checks.”
“That’s odd,” I am saying.
“None of them have been cashed, of course.”
The unicorn suddenly has a lot to say. Why couldn’t I just tell him that I was fired? he is saying. Or he is saying something like that. I really and truly and genuinely don’t know what he is talking about. I am saying that I said I resigned because I did resign. I really do remember using that word, “tender,” in offering my resignation. And there’s been a lot of misdirected mail lately, I say. Even misdirected calls. I have been meaning to mention that to him.
He is saying that lots of people lie, but why do I tell lies that don’t even help me? It’s just fucking weird, he is saying. Also something about the rent, and about health insurance. “And I don’t even really care that much about any of those things,” he says. “I just care that even when you’re in this room with me, you’re not here. Even when you’re here, you’re gone. You’re just in some la-la. Go back out the door and it’ll be just the same: you’re somewhere else and I’m here alone—”
I think this goes on for quite a while. Accusations. Analyses. I feel something like a kind of happiness, shy but arrived. A faint fleeting smile, in front of the firing squad. All my vague and shifting self-loathings are streamlining into brightly delineated wrongs. This particular trial—it feels so angular and specific. So lovable. At least lovable by me. Maybe I’m the dreamer in the relationship after all. Maybe I’m the man.
 
 
Copyright © 2014 by Rivka Galchen

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Table of Contents


CONTENTS 1. The Lost Order2. The Region of Unlikeness3. Sticker Shock4. American Innovations5. Wild Berry Blue6. The Entire Northern Side Was Covered with Fire7. Read Estate8. Dean of the Arts9. The Late Novels of Gene Hackman10. Once an Empire Acknowledgements
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